UTMB CCC – The Surprise of 2015

2015 was going OK. I started training after Christmas for Rotterdam marathon in April. It was going well, although I picked up a few niggles after a ski trip late February, and didn’t get my long runs long enough to have a great race.

Throughout the flat tempo training I severily missed the mountains, and my legs certainly felt weaker when I returned to fell running post Rotterdam.
It was at that point I started strength training with a personal trainer. The objective was simple – build strength to make me a better runner. Less than 2 month in *POP* ….I put out my back. A herniated L5 disc to be precise. Sciatica was my new friend for the next while.

I spent a small fortune on physiotherapy and it didn’t help much, bar some short term relief. Three months in I stopped with the weekly Physio sessions and went with my own daily foam roller and stretch routine. The results were almost instant. Within a few weeks the pins and needles had lessened to the point that I tried to run. It was too soon. A few more weeks passed and things continued to improve. Fast forward to August, only 2 weeks before a planned trip to Chamonix to compete in the CCC, and I had amassed a total of 15km of running in 4 months!

The CCC is part of the UTMB festival of running. It’s the ‘little’ sister of the main 100 miler, the full Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. That said, it’s still a 101Km trail ultra with 6500m of elevation gain. It starts in Courmayer, Italy and follows the Trail du Mont Blanc through Switzerland to Champex-Lac, and on to the finish in Chamonix, France. The same last 101k of the full UTMB race.

It took a lot of time, money, and effort to get the points for the CCC entry, not to mention the luck of getting through the lottery. All compelling reasons to race! BUT …I had run twice – a total of 15km – in the previous 4 months! Surely a stupid idea?

Still, I decided to pack my race kit and go. I didn’t think I would race! That was until I got there. I don’t quite remember what happened, but before I knew it, I had registered for the start and worked out splits to pace the race for a 24 hour finish time (the cut off was 26.5). A lot slower than my original 16-18 hour plan.

Kit packed, brand new shoes bought, and Kinesiology tape applied. My legs needed all the help they could get to stay in one piece!

Race morning I was up early and off to the bus alone. I was excited. I felt at the very least, it would be an opportunity to experience the beautiful scenery that blankets the landscape around the Mont Blanc massif. Besides, a DNF is surely better than a DNS. Right?

The bus arrived in Courmayer and I walked to the start. The air was full of nervous energy. The feeling that’s typically in the air when you have an epic long distance journey ahead. The start area was split into pens. I don’t know why, but I was up front with the elites just slightly ahead. Race nerves were building.

The UTMB anthem started to play and before I knew it the race was underway. The start was fast. Low 5min /km pace through the town, before climbing steadily on winding mountain roads, and then off onto single track trail. I was going OK.

The climb continued out of the forest onto open mountain. I was now being passed by lots of runners. It wasn’t my legs that were holding me back. It was my lungs. I couldn’t get a breath as I struggled on the first climb to Tète de la Tronche at just over 2500m. I was stopping every 5-10 minutes to get a breath! I assumed it was the lack of training. In hindsight I’ve been told it was likely related to the altitude. I never experienced that before. It was very debilitating. It could have been the heat too, as there were record temperatures during the race. So much so that they extended the final cutoff time by 2.5 hours, and also advised that we drink from streams and rivers as well as aid stations. I was drinking 1-1.5L between aid stations.

Feeing rough, and now over the first climb, things didn’t improve. I was still hiking, and the terrain was an easier undulating trail. It felt like it wasn’t to be, but I knew there was no point in pulling out. I promised myself there and then that I wouldn’t quit. If I was too slow and missed a cutoff, then that’s fine, but I wasn’t going to stop through a mental choice of my own. I’m not a quitter. The opposite actually, I’m stubborn as hell. Besides, it’s a long race – you just never know what can happen. Feeling bad is part of the emotional roller coaster that is ultra running.

I pushed on and arrived at Refugee Bertone. I didn’t stop. I didn’t have the time. I thought it better to keep moving and refuel at the next station. It took another 90 minutes, and in that time I dropped another 300 places to 1686th!

I arrived at Refuge Bonatti and went straight for the famed UTMB noodle soup. I also had two cups of cola. Not my usual drink of choice. I actually consume very little caffeine, so when I do, I get a good kick. I didn’t really want to reach for the cola so early, but needs must.

I moved on. I was starting to feel a bit better. I was able to breath. The heat wasn’t consuming just as much. Was it the caffeine? Perhaps. All I know is that 6km after the aid station I was running and feeling realitively OK. I was moving well too. Slow but steady on the climbs, but this was one of the major climbs, up to Grand Col Ferret (2500m). I knew there was a long descent to follow, and that is where I wanted to claw back some time.

Up to the top, scanned by the marshal, now in 1719th place, and off I went. I let go and enjoyed this long descent, trying not to take too much out of my legs. I passed a lot of runners. I thought the other runners were far too slow in this section, although technical descending is where I’m strongest. Maybe I was just passing runners as I was so far out of position way back in the low 1700s? Probably.

I arrived into La Fouly 1531st. 200 runners passed! More soup, cola, water, and off I went. The next stop was just over half way at Champex-Lac (56km), Switzerland. I knew that mentally getting to this point would be huge. I arrived in another hundred places better off. Now 1422nd. Refuelled and headtorch ready. I ran the next hour with a Polish couple. The craic was good as was the pace. Next stop La Giete (67km).

I remember the joy of running in this section. Not because it was great running, but because I was laughing out loud with joy that I WAS ACTUALLY RUNNING! It was hard to believe that I was 70km into a 101km ultra without having run a single training run in preparation. Amazing 🙂
Arrived in La Giete and now 1148th! Another 300 passed! Very quick stop here. Noodle soup and cola. It was now 1am.

Trient next (72km). Arrived 1081st. Still feeling good. Caffeine I love you! Catogne next (77km). Runners are starting to fade, but I’m still OK. Arrived in 977th place. The mindset is to keep consistent. Keep moving steady uphill and run all the downs, and flats if possible. The others doing same just seemed to be slower running downhill. Perhaps this was due to darkness?

I arrived in Vallorcine (82km) at 4am. I was now 906th. This was the first time I felt tired. I saw runners sleeping and those with support crews (families mostly), helping them change socks, eat food, give hugs. I was jealous. All I had was too much caffeine in my system and a lonely bowl of noodle soup. I didn’t hang around, although I did check my phone and read some nice texts from friends and family. I was 2 hours up on 24 hour schedule.

I started the last major climb, La Tete aux vent (2100m). Dawn was approaching. It was cold. I was tired. I knew I could walk to the finish and still make the cutoffs. What motivation was there to push? By simply finishing I would smash my expectations. I mean, nobody even expected me to start the race, yet here I am, 85km down and only 16 to go! Perhaps these factors played a part, but once I reached the Col and began the descent, my knee started to feel very stiff. Before long it would hardly bend. I made it to the top in 861st place. How many would I lose on the descent?

I couldn’t easily push through this. I was tired and well up on schedule. I wasn’t even racing anyone, so why bother? I limped downhill, passed by many of those runners who were being tended to at the last aid station. I managed to run some sections. I just wanted to finish at this stage. Going slow would just prolong that. I kept going and thankfully only dropped 30 places down to La Flegere.

I walked straight through the aid station and didn’t stop. I wanted to steal a few minutes on those who recently passed me on the crawl downhill.

The trails descending through the forest weren’t too steep, so I could run again. I could see and hear the town. Excitement was building. I was actually going to do this.

Entering the town the crowds cheered “Allez Allez” … “Go Ireland”. I was smiling ear to ear. A relative sprint came over me. I couldn’t believe it. I crossed the finish line. Coming back from 1719th to 892nd, and finishing within my paced sub-24 hour time in 23:59:17. All of this with no running. Zero. It felt amazing. Woo hoo! Une pettie Pelfort…

I phoned my wife. Possibly emotional! Drank a beer. It was a good day. What could I achieve with training? Let’s see next time.

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